The Great and Terrible and Awesome and Stupid Food Idea

Anybody who knows me knows I love cooking.  I’m not sure when it started, because, as a kid, I wouldn’t eat anything.  There was even a point when I thought pizza was disgusting.  Maybe it started with my first serious girlfriend.  I didn’t want to be the 22 year old guy who wouldn’t eat his vegetables, so I just tried everything that was put in front of me.  Slowly, I started loving it all.  From there, I guess, it worked the same way my love for reading turned into a love for writing.  Wanting to eat amazing food made me want to cook amazing food.

Flashback to two years ago, when I was seriously considering going back to school.  Austin has a pair of culinary schools, and I thought I’d take a crack at it.  I ran it by my friend Ek, who’s an amazing chef, and he said something that changed my life…

“Don’t go to school for it, man.  Just start working here.  I’ll teach you.”

So I did.  For six weeks, I staged (basically, kitchen intern) at Ek’s place SPIN Modern Thai.  I picked cilantro, chopped onions, cooked rice, and made tempura batter a few times a week.  It was an excellent beginning, a good starter course on how to get around in a kitchen.  Sadly, infrastructure problems killed the restaurant, but I learned a bit, and I fell in love with the work.

Six months later Ek was helping his sister reopen her restaurant Titaya’s Thai Cuisine.  I had the silly idea to submit a resume (job experience: six weeks staging at your brother’s last restaurant).  Honestly, I just wanted to stage again, to keep learning.  I even said as such when I interviewed with Titaya, who is one of the hardest working and most terrifying people I’ve ever met.  When she started talking about pay at the end of the interview, I was stunned.  I’d just sat there and told her I didn’t really know my ass from a hole in the ground, but she was still going to give me a shot.  When Ek told me a few weeks later I’d start out working the wok station in one of the city’s most popular Thai restaurants, I thanked him for the vote of confidence before going home and having a three-day panic attack.

Training happened the night before we opened, kitchen manager Bob (or Pop…he answers to both), stood by the woks with Michael (another SPIN alumn, and a great cook) and me and said, “Here’s how you make pad thai, here’s fried rice, here’s a regular stirfry…everything else is pretty much the same.”  Wait…what?  I didn’t have time to panic for another three days, so I went home, curled into a ball, and screamed for an hour or so.  The next day, I went to work.

Opening night hit Titaya’s like a goddamn tsunami.  Packed dining room, lines out the door, and me standing over a wok, sweating my ass off and hoping I did everything right.  Michael saved my ass more than once, as did Ek, and I can’t tell you how thankful I’ll always be for not telling Titaya to just shitcan me right away.  For weeks, they coached me along with their mix of support and shit-talking.  Fun story: a month ago, I asked Michael how good he thought I was.  I wanted an honest opinion.  A drunk Michael hemmed and hawed a bit, then said, “You’re starting. You work part time.  You’re as good as you should be.”  Very true, and, honestly, as close to a compliment as I deserve.

After four months, I left Titaya’s to follow Ek to his new place, the Thai/Southern Comfort place Kin & Comfort.  I’ve learned even more there, the benefits of a smaller kitchen and closer staff.  Since June, I’ve been there, usually popping in a night or two a week to make sauces.  It’s been great, and the food’s been amazing.  Do yourself a favor and stop by either place the next time you’re in Austin.

All of this new experience has led to a lot of thinking.  See, a while back I got an idea for a novella that would take place in a food trailer.  I still haven’t gotten around to writing it, because I decided the first thing I’d do is come up with the trailer’s menu.  I spent almost two weeks tinkering with that damn menu, a menu for a trailer that doesn’t exist.

Then, I did something I didn’t expect.  Instead of starting the novella, I started testing out the menu items.  I tried a few every weekend, playing and tinkering and refining.  I used some of them for a holiday meal for my ex and her family, used them again for a friend’s going away party.  They went over well.  Shockingly well.  This past weekend, I experimented a little more, and everything clicked into place.

Holy shit.  Do I want to start a food trailer?  At the age of 38, do I want to throw every ounce of my life into opening a goddamn food trailer?

No, I couldn’t.  It’s a terrible idea.  I’ve spent one year working in restaurants part time.  My chops aren’t where they need to be. I don’t have anything resembling start-up cash.  Diving in would mean me leaving my job with its livable wage and health benefits and paid vacation.  I’d be so busy, I don’t know what would happen to my writing.  And food trailers fail on a daily basis.  It’s a terrible, stupid idea.

But it’s also an awesome and inspiring idea, the first thing that’s really excited me in years. It’s scary (hell, terrifying), but it’s something I think about more and more every day.

And I can’t seem to stop thinking.  Weird….

Eat me! It’s Thanksgiving Day!

So Thanksgiving is two days away.  Maybe you need a side dish, and maybe I need a blog topic?  Maybe there’s some way we can help each other out?

You bet your sweet ass, there is!

See, I’m a meat eater from way back, and I’ve only recently reached the point where I can eat vegetables without making gag faces.  While I realize this doesn’t make me a paragon of maturity, it down put me in a position to expound on vegetable dishes that the non-vegetable lovers out there might like.  For instance, here’s one I’ve made for the last three Thanksgivings that has gone over very well.  Feel free to try it.

(You’ll notice everything is sort of tossed in without much precision. You won’t find a lot of measurements here.  Sorry about that.)

Nate’s Green Beans and Sundried Tomatoes

2 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced (show some self-respect and don’t use a garlic press, okay?)
3-4 sundried tomatoes, cut into thin strips
About a tablespoon of diced white onion
A big bunch of fresh green beans, as many as you want (I usually do enough to fill a 14″ cast iron skillet)
About 2 tablespoons of butter
A few splashes of white wine

Okay, so heat up your skillet and sautee the garlic and onions in the butter.  Wait until they’re good and fragrant, then toss in the tomoatoes.  Give those some time, then add the green beans .  The goal is to sear the beans and tomoatoes a bit, so cook them for a good while, splashing now and then with the wine.  Once you’ve got some good black marks on them, splash one last time and then cover.  Leave it for a couple of minutes to cook the rest of the way, and then you’re done!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Hookers, Pizza, and Idiots Like Me

No new hint today.  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that.  Instead, today I’ll give you another in a long series of essays I like to call, “That Is Fucking Stupid.”

Today’s Subject: Take and Bake Pizza.

For months now, friends have been telling me I have to try this place called Papa Murphy’s.  I’ve heard everything from “Best Pizza Chain Six Years Running!” to “So tasty you’ll think God tongue kissed you!”  Now, I remained skeptical.  After all, this is a pizza chain that sells you raw pizzas and makes you go cook them your own damn self.  No matter how you slice it (heh), that sounds like a dumb idea to me.

However, don’t let it be said I won’t try something once (unless that something is stabbing myself in the eye).  So I decided to give Papa Murphy’s a shot.

I walk in the empty (remember that part, because it’s important) take out place around five-thirty Saturday.  I spend a few minutes acquaiting myself with the menu, and then I place an order for a large five meat pizza.

The helpful and chipper girl at the register rings me up. “That’ll be $12.99.”

Blink.  Blink, blink.

Look, I know I’m taking this pizza home and cooking it myself.  At this point, I’m fine with the fact.  I still have to pay $13 for it, though?  Isn’t that like paying a hooker a few hundred bucks so you can take matters into your own hands?  A large meat pizza at just about anyplace else is only a few bucks more.  And they’ll cook the damn thing for ya.  And a meat pizza from your grocer’s freezer is a whole lot less.

But I promised I would try this stuff, so I smile and pay.

And wait.

After a moment, chipper register girl tells me I can have a seat while my pizza is assembled.  What?  Seriously?  You’re supposed to be getting ready for a dinner rush, I can see four other employees milling around in the back, and you don’t have one of your specialty pizzas ready to go?  I mean, I can see a cooler behind you, and I can see pizzas in it.

So I sit. And I wait. For ten minutes. I mentioned I was their only customer, right?

This is where I start having problems.  See, I worked in a pizza place for several years, so I know it takes a large pizza eight minutes to travel through a pizza oven.  Add on the two minutes it should take to assemble a pizza for the only customer you have, and you’ve reached your ten minutes.  Ten minutes for slapping sauce, cheese, and meat onto dough is not acceptable.  A stoned chimp could build a pizza faster.

So after ten minutes I’ll never get back, chipper register girl wraps my pizza and goes over the baking instructions with me.  I smile and nod until she gets to the bake time.  She says, “Seventeen to twenty minutes,” and I bite back the urge to scream in her smiling face.  By now I’m positive I’ve let myself be hoodwinked.  Somewhere, my friends are laughing their asses off at how they tricked me into overpaying for a pizza I could have made myself.

So I went home and cooked the pizza, and it tasted okay.  Not amazing, not horrible.  Okay.  For context, imagine I payed a so-so looking hooker $400 and then she watched TV while I was forced to pleasure myself.  I’m sure there are better ways to spend the money.

So, no.  I won’t be returning to Papa Murphy’s anytime soon.  I think next time I’ll just grab some ingredients and make my own pizza.

Top Chef Returns, Pray for My Family

Top Chef, that reality competition of bad-ass chefs, returns tonight.  I can’t wait.  The show is one of my greatest guilty pleasures, and I can already see myself staying up later than usual (I’m lame and hit the sack early) while staring at my TV and salivating.

Of course, the return of this fine show creates some problems.  Not for me, of course, but for my family, most notably Shawna.  In the past I’ve discussed my love of food and cooking, and I’ve discussed my relative suck-i-tude at said cooking.  Well, maybe I don’t suck, but I’m no where as good as I’d like to be.  I tend to stress over details that shouldn’t affect a small dinner between Shawna and myself.  Couple this with my complete lack of maturity, and we’ve got one helluva a recipe… for disaster!

So, for your reading pleasure I now present a list of things Shawna is most likely to hear me say in the kitchen during the coming months.

“Don’t burn!  Why are you burning?”

“Fuck you, rice!”

“Everything we own is shit!”

“Get these motherfucking animals away from my stove!”

“Do I look like I need help?”

“Um, a little fucking help, please!”



“Motherfuck me!”

“Motherfuck your fucking mother, you motherfucking chicken breast!”

“Why the hell is it sticking?”

“The goddamn fish just fell apart!”

“Simon, get your fucking nose out of the wok!”

“Goddammit, I fucking suck at this!”

“Why do I even bother?”

“Seriously.  Fuck you, rice!”

“They don’t even look like scallops anymore!”

“Should have ordered a pizza!”

“No salt?  You don’t want salt?  Why don’t we just eat some motherfucking cardboard?!”

“Please cook this goddamn thing before I completely ruin it!”

“There is no way I can un-fuck this!”

“I could destroy Cheerios!”

And so forth. 

So you see, Shawna may have a bit of an adventure coming her way, courtesy of her stress-filled boyfriend who loves to cook but can’t keep things from going south.  Pray for her.

The search for Austin’s best burger, Round One

It was a noble quest.  When I started back on June 2nd, I jumped in with both feet.  Now, almost seven weeks later, I report back with the first of my findings.  What follows is a list, in taste-order, of the burgers I’ve tried so far.  Will one of them be the best burger in Austin?  Time will tell.

1. Top Notch
7525 Burnet Rd
Cooked over charcoal and made to order, Top Notch is going to be a tough burger to beat.  Their menu is simple, yet large, and the burgers are mouth watering, like something offf the backyard grill.  Probably the most affordable burger on this list, too, with a cheeseburger clocking in at $2.99

2. Dan’s Hamburgers
5602 N Lamar Rd
If Top Notch is your backyard, then Dan’s is the diner on the corner.  With a heaping helping of greasy spoon charm, this place sells their burgers in three sizes.  Their bacon, which costs you a few cents extra, is the best I’ve encountered.

3. P. Terry’s Burger Stand
Corner of Barton Springs and Lamar
A wonderful walk-up with a menu of only a few items, this place does burgers and fries in the In and Out Burger tradition: everything made fresh and by hand, every day.  No frozen patties or pre-cut fries here, and it shows in the taste!

4. The Frisco Shop
5819 Burnet Rd
When you’ve been around for fifty years and sport a staff that’s been there forty, you better put out a damn good burger.  Luckily, the Frisco does not disappoint.  They offer the classic Frisco Burger and the Deep South.  I tried the Deep South and was mighty impressed.  Probably the classiest feel of the places I’ve tried so far, and the prices won’t break your budget.

5. Phil’s Icehouse
5620 Burnet Rd
This place doesn’t have a lot of years behind it, but they have a great menu and a fair amount of skill.  The Brentwood, their bacon cheeseburger, is the biggest sandwich I’ve had in a long time, and it’s damn tasty, too.  I didn’t particulalry care for the sweet potato fries, but that’s a minor complaint.  I’d recommend this place in a heartbeat.

6. The Boulevard Bar and Grill
3616 Far West Blvd, Suite 116
It pains me that I can’t recommend this place.  In fact, I can only warn you against it.  This little hole in the wall used to sport my favorite burger in town, but now only features slow service and bland food.  The sweet buns your sandwich somes on are still very nice, but everything else pales in comparison.  Oh, and you can smell the bathrooms from anywhere in the restaurant, too.  A damn shame.  Avoid.


Last night, Shawna and I went to Uchi for our seventh anniversary.  If you live in, around, or over Austin, TX, you’ve probably heard of the restaurant that sounds like an exclamation.  After opening in 2003, this Japanese restaurant quickly shot to the top of just about every local food poll and put Executive Chef Tyson Cole on the national map.

It seemes a shame that I’ve never been to Uchi, but as much as I pretend to be a foodie, I really can’t afford to go fine dining all the time.  Luckily, Shawna and I have an anniversary once a year, so we can always use that as an excuse.

So, Uchi–that small restaurant with its shifting menu–became our destination this year, and we couldn’t be happier with the experience.

First, the interior of the restaurant is beautiful, full of red and gold and dark wood.  A tiny bar gives way to a larger sushi bar, where the fresh fish is on full display.

The waitstaff was incredibly helpful, which is a godsend to folks like us, who were having mild anxiety attacks trying to figure out which items were appetizers and not wanting to look like idiots.

This brings us to the most important part… The food.  Truth is, there are no appetizers at Uchi.  Every dish is small and made to order.  Out waiter recommended three dishes per person, but we did two each and barely had room for dessert.  The menu features a variety of permanent options that range from five dollars to twenty or more, and the daily menu features those items that are a bit more expensive.  We went for a good mix, and I’ll go ahead and run it down with some comments for each.

Takara Nigori
(A cold, sweet saki that was a little too sweet for might taste, but very refreshing)

Crunchy Tuna Roll
Bigeye tuna, avocado, balsamic, tempura flakes, japanese cucumber
(A great dish to start with.  Good with soy sauce and wasabi or the spicy mustard they served it with)

Tomato Katsu
Panko-fried green tomatoes
(Cruncy, delicious, and hot!  Pretty good size, too)

Hotate Shoga
Maine diver scallops, fairy ring mushrooms, oven dried cherubs, hydroponic peashoots, miso emulsion
(Damn! Both the scallops and mushrooms were in top form, and Shawna and I cleaned this plate in just over a minute)

Kamo Zuke
Seared moulard duck breast, shitake mushrooms, broiled Japanese eggplant, tamari
(Incredible! Still cool in the center, and oh so tasty. Trimming the fat on one side to look like teeth in a jawbone was a strange touch, but I still ate this right up.  The mushrooms and eggplant might have been the best part of the night)

Peanut butter semi freddo with apple-miso sorbet and ringo crisps
(Normally, I despise the idea of any peanut butter ice cream product, but this was subtle and tasty and matched the apple flavor wonderfully.  A great way to end the night)

So, yeah.  Uchi caught me off guard with just how wonderful it is.  Anybody in Austin looking for a night out (and not too afraid to spend some cash), should look into Uchi.  We spent about $160 after tip, but we also bought a bottle of wine and splurged on some of the more expensive items.  There’s no reason a couple couldn’t get in and out for $50-$60.

Preparing for another culinary adventure

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, I love to eat.  It’s my favorite hobby.  Well, maybe my second fav.  My top would be cooking.  I looove to cook.  I’m not too great at it, but I’m constantly striving to improve (I even considered joining a culinary program until I realized it would mean another $10,000 worth of debt for me.

Okay, that’s neither here nor there.  Right now we’re talking about eating.  Two years ago, I started an annual summer project.  That year, I had to try a new restaurant every week.  Last year, I went on the search for the perfect taco.

This year, I will find Austin’s best hamburger.

Maybe this isn’t the greatest idea when I’m trying to improve my eating habits, but I figure once a week won’t do too much damage, and there’s really too many fabled Austin burger joints to pass up.  My only concern is visiting a majority of them during a single summer.  Oh well.  I make these sacrifices so you don’t have to.

Be sure to pay attention starting in June.  Let’s eat!


So Long Old Friend

When I met you almost four years ago, I never knew our friendship would last this long.  You just showed up at my door, begging for a place to stay.  I took you in and gave you a home.  You’ve been with me ever since, a faithful companion.  Together, we made several trips down the street and back, smiling all the way.  Over time, I grew to depend on you-to love you, in a way.  I suppose I always knew our partnership couldn’t last forever, but I hoped.  Oh, God, how I hoped.  But now it’s over.  It saddens me so deeply to say it’s over…

…And all because that bastard working the register at Domino’s finally took away my coupon for a large three-topponng for $8.99.

Breakfast at Hoover’s

Shawna was hungry when she woke up yesterday, so I suggested we go to Hoover’s Cooking for our early morning meal.  Why not, right?  It’s close, and I’ve been looking for another excuse to eat there.

Well, we arrive and sat down.  Shawna ordered the chicken etouffe and biscuits, and I ordered what I have now decided is the greatest breakfast in the world…

Chicken and pancakes.

A fried drumstick and breast, light, greasy, and a little sweet, with two pancakes about as big around as a human skull.  I came close to finishing it all, but not quite.  Can’t wait until payday, though.  Because I’m going back.

I’ll be back tomorrow or Wednesday with writing-related stuff.

Taco Tour 2006, Finale

I know, there was supposed to be a week 12, but I’ve declared a winner.  I have found that Austin Taco Mecca that will be my new Saturday eatin’ spot.

And it’s a trailer.

Taqueria Don Chuy.

This taco trailer sits in a lot at the corner of North Lamar and Grady.  It’s touch to miss.  Big white trailer with the word TACOS spraypainted across it.  And I gotta hand it to the folks who work that thing.  Two ladies crammed in a trailer with no AC, complete with fridge, grill, hotplate, sink, and a bunch of other stuff I couldn’t make out.

Prcies at this place are excellent.  I order 1 carne guisada, 1 beef fajita, and 1 chicken fajita for the kingly sum of $4.50.  They wrapped my meal up and I sat at a nearby picnic table to start eating.


The carne guisada is the most tender and flavorful I’ve ever had.  The chicken fajita, topped with onion and red pepper, puts everybody else in town to shame.  The beef fajita was subdued, with a hint of lime poking through rather than the dominant dumin you get elsewhere.

And I just scratched the surface of their menu.

I’ll be back on Saturday.  Who’s coming with me?

Carne Guisada: 9.5

Chicken Fajita: 9.8

Beef Fajita: 8.5

Value bonus: 4

Average: 10.6